"Does this... look right?" I asked, cupping one of 10 flexible, vaguely boob-shaped plastic bowls against one naked breast, while the other dangled there.
"Whichever one feels comfortable and covers you," the sales associate, Whitney, reassured me. "But yeah," she said, pointing under my arm, "you wanna get that in there."
"Right. Yikes." And I reached for a bigger bowl.
For my entire adult life, I've been a chronic in-public bra adjuster.
You've likely seen women like me before, restlessly digging around inside their shirts to fix what's gone wrong below deck, or jamming their thumbs in just below the armpits for a quick everything-back-in-place shakedown. The habitual tugger of underwires, the indiscreet scooper-and-tucker of stray underboob. My mother calls this habit "unbecoming."
An expert would probably call it evidence that I, like an oft-reported 8 out of 10 American women, wear a bra that doesn't fit. But as an annually fitted, routine buyer of D-cup bras, I've always called it the small karmic price I pay for being able to wear strapless dresses, or for having a surefire strategy to catch a lazy bartender's attention in a pinch.
When I saw a story in The New York Times recently, though -- "A New Step in Wrestling With the Bra" -- I couldn't help but feel a little wistful. Undergarment emperor Jockey, according to the story, was reinventing the bra with the goal of creating the ultimate comfortable garment that could perfectly fit and support a woman of any shape.
After screening hundreds of women and listening to women's complaints about their bras -- about their uncomfortable or unsupportive fit; their inconsistent sizing; their jabby, constricting underwires; even their favorite manufacturers' habit of discontinuing their favorite styles -- Jockey spent eight years engineering a new product called, creatively, the Jockey Bra. Now available for purchase, the it looks identical to a conventional bra, but it aims (and claims) to be much more: According to Jockey, the "reinvented" bra solves these assorted problems by offering consistent sizing in styles that won't be discontinued, plus a flexible resin "3-D contour" piece instead of an underwire ("Because we're not flat," as Whitney explained). And perhaps most radically, the Jockey Bra has thrown out the traditional sizing system in favor of "volumetric sizing" -- that is, a larger variety of cup sizes and shapes designed to more securely accommodate a larger variety of breasts, which could keep women comfier and even potentially healthier.
And that's how I ended up naked in front of Whitney, clutching what looked like a warped Frisbee to my chest. The promise of a no-fuss, strap-it-on-and-forget-about-it bra beckoned.
Was it too good to be true?
Well, yes and no.
The ill-fitting bra problem, by Jockey's logic, results from a time-honored tradition of bra manufacturers failing to take into consideration the actual shape and weight of a breast.
Traditionally, bra cup sizes are based on two measurements: the distance around the breasts at their fullest point (the "nipple line," it's sometimes called) minus the circumference of the ribcage just below the breast tissue (or "under-bust"). A one-inch difference corresponds to an A-cup; two inches, a B-cup, et cetera.
But as Jockey's slogan goes, "You wouldn't measure a pitcher of water in inches." In other words, because a breast -- especially a larger breast -- is malleable and often somewhat round, measuring a garment to support it is a little more complicated than the alphanumeric system of bust-circumference-minus-chest-wall-circumference accounts for.
Hence the 10 different sizes of jellyfish-esque "volumetric fit cups" that were lined up in a row before me. As Whitney explained to me while I boob-tested one "fit cup" after another, each larger size is shaped more like a rounder, fuller breast to ensure that the closest possible measurement of actual breast tissue gets taken. (For more on how that works, watch Jessica, whose breasts are made of glass, get fitted in the Jockey promotional video)
The women who might benefit the most from the Jockey Bra, Whitney explained, are those women with what she calls "pendulous" breasts, or larger breasts that hang down onto the chest wall. If a woman has pendulous breasts (and many women do), the traditional nipple-line-minus-ribcage measurement doesn't account for any breast tissue that hangs below the nipple line. A bra, of course, lifts the breasts upward. A cup that's the purported "right" size for a woman with pendulous breasts, then, can leave some overspill on the sides or over the top of the cup, which can weigh down the front of the bra and cause it to ride up in the back or dig uncomfortably into the shoulders.
Other negative health effects of wearing an insufficiently supportive bra have been well-documented over the years. Breast pain and back pain are well-known side effects of poor bra fit, and very concerned osteopath Jon-Morton Bell even warned British news outlet The Independent:
If a woman is bending forward because of insufficient breast support, the trapezius overstretches and causes headaches. All nerve roots come from the back; stomach upsets and fatigue are common by-products of bad back health.
So a new method for finding precisely the right cup size and shape could be immensely helpful for women -- especially those women with pendulous breasts -- who find their postures affected by bras that don't adequately support them.
"Pendulous," I repeated. "Is that what I have?"
Whitney laughed politely. Not as pendulous as some she'd seen.
The Jockey Bra comes in 55 sizes -- based on combinations of 10 different cup sizes and seven under-bust measurements -- and five different styles. In the spirit of finding the garment that truly best conformed to and supported my natural shape, I chose, quite literally, the bra of least resistance: the un-padded, full-coverage Double Lined Contour model in the weirdly foreign size "7-34." Then my brand-new, "closest thing to custom" Jockey Bra was placed in my hands in what looked like a light-blue shoebox, like a glass boob-slipper that promised to transform me from a maternally embarrassing underwire yanker to an effortlessly well-supported princess.
The next day at work, I was dismayed to find that I was not any more of a princess than I had been the day before. I felt, as per usual, like a person wearing a bra.
But I did find that I had less fidgety hands.
In the Jockey Bra, the following everyday activities could be completed without the obligatory re-shuffle afterward:
- Running to catch a waiting elevator before the doors closed.
- Bending over to get a yogurt from the bottom shelf of the office fridge.
- A midday finally-outta-the-desk-chair overhead stretch.
- Scampering down an escalator in time to hop aboard a subway train.
- Resuming normal upright evening activities after an accidental couch nap.
- Ashtanga yoga in a zero-gravity chamber.*
- Jumping rope on a trampoline while driving 60 miles per hour over speed bumps.*
*Not actually tested
Now, make no mistake: The Jockey Bra I chose, though fabulously un-frustrating, was also terrifically, terrifyingly unsexy. Perhaps that's because I picked a model with a "natural" fit, which does the opposite of what a pushup bra might do. (Rather than lifting and smushing together, it just sort of... cradles, like a couple of hammocks.) Or perhaps that's simply because it's a bra made by Jockey -- and bras made by Jockey aren't generally the kind you wear under an anniversary dinner-date ensemble anyway.
But for pattering around my office on a Thursday, comfortably un-voluptuous was a perfectly acceptable option -- and the hands-free, low-maintenance nature of a bra that fit snugly and firmly was a productivity-boosting surprise.
Jockey's radical "reinvention" of the bra didn't reinvent my life, but a better-fitting bra certainly made me a less squirmy human -- and more shape-conscious sizing systems could make an even bigger difference for women whose musculoskeletal health is adversely affected by an ill-fitting bra. If Jockey's new undergarment sizing system signals the future of the bra, we could look forward to less aggressive underwires, fewer over-burdened shoulder straps, and a generally less fidgety tomorrow.